Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the General Assembly, 64th Session, United Nations Headquarters, New York, Tuesday, 3 November 2009, 10 a.m.

Speeches and statements

Statement by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Third Committee of the General Assembly, 64th Session, United Nations Headquarters, New York, Tuesday, 3 November 2009, 10 a.m.

3 November 2009

Version as delivered, 3 November 2009

Agenda Item 41: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, questions relating to refugees, returnees and displaced persons and humanitarian questions

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates,

Humanitarian action in general, and UNHCR's in particular, takes place today in the context of a very difficult international environment.

Billions, even trillions, have been spent in developed countries seeking to dampen the worst consequences of the global financial and economic crisis.

And the impact of the crisis on the developing world has received comparatively little attention even though that is where its impact will be most severe, with possibly millions of jobs lost, reduced remittances and lower investment leading to more poverty, and more extreme poverty.

The crisis could reverse years of poverty reduction efforts and undermine achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. But even this understates the risks it represents. To understand this, we must examine the impacts of the crisis, namely on displacement, in conjunction with the world's mega-trends, which are themselves increasingly interconnected.

I will mention five of these.

First, population growth. At present, there are approximately 6.7 billion people on earth. By 2050, we are expected to surpass nine billion. Almost all of the population growth will come in the developing world.

Second, urbanization. Already, a majority of all the people in the world live in cities. By 2050, the proportion is expected to reach 70 percent. Services and jobs are already failing to keep pace.

Third, climate change. Global warming threatens to contribute to massive displacement. The increase in extreme weather events also make natural disasters approximately twice as likely today as they were two decades ago.

Fourth, food, water and energy insecurity. By the end of this year, more than a billion people are likely to suffer from hunger and malnutrition. World food prices have dropped but the food crisis has not ended in many poor countries. And approximately 1.4 billion people lack safe water while water shortages threaten millions. Energy demand is expected to increase by 50 percent in the next 20 years, most of it still likely in the form of fossil fuels, which will contribute to global warming. Competition over these and other resources will necessarily intensify.

Fifth, migration. The world has more than 200 million migrants. And the demographics, economics and, increasingly, environmental degradation, which drive migration are unlikely to relent.

Attempting to deal with these mega-trends individually would doom the effort to failure. They are a global reality and need a global response, though this has not always been the strongest feature of an international community whose analytical and policy tools are fragmented and dispersed.

Mr. Chairman,

In conjunction with the global recession, the world's mega-trends are causing crises to multiply and deepen. Including Palestinian refugees, two-thirds of all the refugees in the world are situated in a curving band of crisis stretching from south-west Asia through the Middle East to the Horn and Great Lakes of Africa.

Of the nearly 14.5 million internally displaced people to benefit from UNHCR's protection and assistance activities in 2008, approximately three-quarters resided in these countries. Moreover, almost all the significant new internal displacement has been there.

Nearly one out of every two people forcibly displaced by conflict, violence or human rights abuse, also resides in Africa. An important new instrument for responding to forced displacement was adopted by African Heads of State less than two weeks ago in Kampala, Uganda, at the African Union's Special Summit on Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons. And I have to say I consider the approval of the African Union Convention a major breakthrough. This is the first international legally binding instrument on IDPs. African leadership has been exemplary and I can only hope that this will be copied in other regions and other parts of the world.

Mr. Chairman,

Reflecting the influence of the mega-trends, contemporary forms of displacement are becoming more complex. Conflict, climate change, extreme poverty, poor governance, food and energy crises will increasingly compound the causes of displacement.

In this environment, I believe UNHCR faces four main challenges.

The first of these is the shrinking of humanitarian space, which is driven by three factors. There is a multiplicity of actors in today's conflicts, many of whom have no respect for humanitarian principles or the safety of humanitarian staff. The firmer line taken on national sovereignty by a few governments has also resulted in humanitarian agencies being thrown out of countries where they are very much needed, or not allowed in in the first place. The blurring of lines that used to clearly separate the civilian and the military has created a confusion that is cynically and brutally exploited by some to undermine individual operations and even the very foundations of humanitarian action.

In a period of just six months, UNHCR lost three staff members while a fourth was abducted and held for 63 days before being released. No matter is more important to UNHCR or other humanitarian agencies than the safety of staff. For its part, UNHCR has created a permanent Security Steering Committee to examine the security situation of key UNHCR operations worldwide and recommend enhanced measures in response. These are paralleled at field level by local security steering committees under the direction of UNHCR's country Representatives.

Aware that hardware alone will not keep us safe, we are enhancing our security software: information-gathering capacity, staff training and rules of engagement, paying special attention to national and implementing partner staff. In addition to confidence-building initiatives with local communities and communicating proactively with all relevant actors, we are strengthening the mechanisms of our cooperation with the UN system, in particular with the Department of Safety and Security, for risk assessment, training and the sharing of expertise.

Mr. Chairman,

The second challenge is the shrinking of asylum space.

While contracting humanitarian space represents our major challenge in operational theatres in the developing world, I am gravely concerned by the shrinking asylum space, mostly but not exclusively in the developed world.

Despite positive developments in asylum law and practice in a few jurisdictions, including a welcome emphasis on alternatives to the detention of asylum-seekers, especially children, the trend is broadly towards greater restrictions and fewer rights.

A number of developed countries are limiting access to their territories in ways that do not respect the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees under international and regional law. Pushing asylum-seekers back to where protection is not available or further burdening developing countries, which already host four-fifths of the world's refugees, is neither moral nor acceptable.

In situations where asylum-seekers do enjoy access to a territory, this does not necessarily translate into protection. Some systems have effectively a zero recognition rate, even for asylum-seekers from war-torn countries. In addition to being unfair, this adds to the problem of onward secondary movements, as asylum-seekers search out States where they have some hope of having their protection needs recognized. A harmonized approach would undoubtedly be better, and this is why we remain so supportive of a common European asylum system, in particular.

Mr. Chairman,

The third challenge is the increasing difficulty of achieving durable solutions. This is directly related to the increasing complexity and intractability of contemporary forms of conflict.

While more than 600,000 refugees voluntarily repatriated with UNHCR's support in 2008, this was 17 percent fewer people than the year before and - with the exception of a single year - the lowest number in the last 15. Massive repatriation movements are decelerating as the situations in Afghanistan, Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo become less conducive to return and reintegration.

In terms of local integration, the United Republic of Tanzania has approved the citizenship applications of more than 30 thousand of the approximately 170,000 Burundian refugees of 1972 for whom it is considering naturalization. It is an extremely generous approach by the United Republic of Tanzania. In West Africa, the Economic Community of West African States has helpfully clarified that refugees from a member State are entitled to the work, residency and other rights available to community citizens.

But overall, with fewer refugees returning to their countries of origin and the economic crisis beginning to bite deeply in host States, the increased receptivity to local integration - evident just a short time ago - is already being eroded.

It is essential to underline the scale of the burden borne by host countries in the developing world. In response to current crises alone, Chad, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Jordan, Kenya, Pakistan, the Syrian Arab Jamahiriya, the United Republic of Tanzania and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela all host more than 200,000 refugees or persons in refugee-like situations.

With voluntary repatriation and local integration opportunities declining, there is a correspondingly greater demand for resettlement. UNHCR submitted more than 121,000 refugees for resettlement consideration in 2008. That is twice as many people as in 2006 and nearly four times the average number of referrals in the decade preceding it. Unfortunately, this adds up to more refugees than available resettlement places. And additional resettlement places must be found.

Mr. Chairman,

With fewer solutions, there will be more refugees in protracted situations. Supported by a multi-functional team at Headquarters, UNHCR has developed a Global Plan of Action on protracted refugee situations. This puts emphasis on enhanced support for voluntary repatriation, a revised education strategy, multi-year strategies for self-reliance, more support for refugee-affected and hosting areas, prioritized use of resettlement in protracted situations and an increased emphasis on partnerships.

The same risk of protractedness and the need for a comprehensive approach to solutions animate our efforts on statelessness. In recent years we have had some major breakthroughs. The Urdu-speaking Biharis in Bangladesh were enfranchised in time for national elections held in December 2008 while the Russian Federation is granting nationality to an increasing number of those left stateless following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In Kyrgystan and Viet Nam, we are working with governments and civil society to survey and register stateless populations as a first step towards solutions. We are also making adequate information on nationality and documentation available in Côte d'Ivoire and providing legal counseling in the western Balkans, Iraq and Nepal.

Mr. Chairman,

Urban refugees are the fourth challenge.

I should be clear that by "urban refugees" I mean all persons of concern to UNHCR in urban settings: refugees, asylum-seekers, returnees, the internally displaced and the stateless. In my remarks to this Committee last year, I emphasized that those we are mandated to protect and assist are increasingly residing in and migrating to cities. Providing protection in urban settings will be the subject of this year's Dialogue on Protection Challenges on 9 and 10 December.

In recognition of the strong links between displacement, urban planning and poverty reduction, we are conducting a scoping study on urban displacement together with the Cities Alliance, a global coalition of municipal authorities and development partners. We have also undertaken a thorough review of our urban operations for Iraqis in Damascus, Amman and Beirut, and have introduced a new urban refugee policy.

Mr. Chairman,

Everything UNHCR needs and wants to do for urban refugees - indeed for all persons of concern today - has to be undertaken in a highly challenging economic environment. Three years ago, before the current crisis hit, but with the awareness that UNHCR's long term sustainability required it to become a leaner and more efficient organization, we embarked on a comprehensive structural reform process.

Most of the key reform decisions have now been taken and implemented and I can report on the early results. In 2006, our activities represented a total expenditure of US$ 1.1 billion. In 2009, we anticipate that it will be approximately US$ 1.7 billion. And so we have increased our activities by more than 50 percent while maintaining the same number of staff worldwide and actually reducing our personnel in Geneva by 30 percent.

The proportion of total expenditure dedicated to Headquarters, including the new Global Service Centre in Budapest, has been reduced from nearly 14 percent in 2006 to approximately 10 percent of our global expenditure in 2008. By 2010, it would cost approximately US$ 13 million more in salaries and rent alone to do in Geneva everything that the organization will do in Budapest in the new Global Service Centre.

In the same period, staff costs have been reduced from 41 percent of UNHCR's total expenditure to 34 percent. Even taken together with administrative costs, the ratio of staff and administrative budget to operations once again strongly favours operations.

We have increased the implementing partner contribution to our global activities from 31.5 percent of total expenditure in 2006 to 35.2 percent in 2008.

The savings generated through reform have allowed significant additional resources to be freed up for the people we care for.

Initially, the benefits were aimed at critical gaps in the areas of malaria, malnutrition, reproductive health and sexual and gender-based violence, and to initiate new programmes for anemia and water and sanitation. These investments have been mainstreamed and our focus on responding to sexual and gender-based violence has been progressively incorporated into UNHCR's operational activities in health, education, livelihoods and security, as well as legal and judicial support.

The reforms have also significantly enhanced UNHCR's emergency response, as was evident in the speed with which we were able to deploy staff and assistance in response, namely to the recent crises in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Perhaps most important among the reforms is UNHCR's new approach to assessing beneficiary needs, and our ambitious results-based framework. Needs-based budgeting through the Global Needs Assessment (GNA) was piloted in 2008 and rolled out worldwide in early 2009. The GNA, which is supported by a custom-designed results-based management software, will allow us for the first time to project the full scale of our beneficiaries' needs. The organization's Global Strategic Priorities were finalized in August this year and the Global Accountability Framework, mapping responsibilities and authorities across the organization, is now being tested.

The process of decentralization and regionalization is ongoing, with 67 of the countries in which UNHCR is present now already covered by 16 regional offices, and new approaches being tested in the Regional Bureaux for Europe and the Americas. The authority for decisions has been moved as close as possible to the point of delivery.

A first phase of human resources reform has been completed with the establishment of an Ethics Office; a whistleblowers policy; a Staff-Management Consultative Council; a Career Management Services Section; improved procedures for fast-track deployments in emergencies; a new policy on short-term assignments to reduce the number of staff-in-between-assignments; and the introduction of a new performance appraisal system, which promises to increase objectivity and fairness.

The second and final phase of human resources reform is ongoing. It includes a more streamlined and professional assignments and promotions process and alignment of UNHCR with the new UN system-wide administration of justice regime. We are also examining how best to enhance UNHCR's recruitment procedures.

In the context of the UN, these are not always easy reforms. But they are absolutely essential if UNHCR is to be agile and effective as an organization our staff deserve, and our beneficiaries require.

Mr. Chairman,

The change process is moving now into a phase of consolidation. Our focus will be on oversight and continuous improvement, building on the gains that have already been made.

In Headquarters, a new Division for Programme Support and Management has been created to integrate programme management, analysis and support functions previously scattered across the organization. At the same time, the capacity of the Division of International Protection Services is being enhanced to enable it to assume responsibility for education, registration and a strategic approach to solutions.

The recommendations made by the European Union's Anti-Fraud Office to augment the independence and integrity of the Office of the Inspector General, by the Fritz Institute assessment on the end-to-end supply chain, and by the external review of the UNHCR Division responsible for information and communications technology services, are in an advanced phase of implementation.

Mr. Chairman,

UNHCR is not yet the organization we want it to be - but we are getting there. We do not lose sight of the fact that reform is not an objective in itself but a means by which to achieve our vision of an organization more able to deliver protection, assistance and solutions for those we care for. That is the only true measure of the effectiveness of our reforms.

And by that measure, I believe, many of our reforms have already been effective. We have embraced our wider responsibilities for conflict-generated internally displaced people, including leadership of the protection, shelter and camp coordination and management clusters in the context of humanitarian reform, in a way that generated a positive effect on the resources available to refugees and the stateless.

It seems a paradox, but it is true - by containing our global structural costs, the additional revenues targeted to programmes for the internally displaced contributed to meeting those costs and created a cross-benefit for refugees and the stateless. We have fully respected the pledge I made not to allow our responsibilities for internally displaced people to take away from our resources for refugees.

In terms of natural disasters, and in the context of the humanitarian reform we are fully engaged in, most clusters, including shelter and camp coordination and management, have clear leads. UNHCR has the global lead on protection in natural disasters but at the field level, there is a gap.

At our Executive Committee meeting in Geneva a month ago, I asked member States for their support, in the context of the IASC and in consultation with UNICEF and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for UNHCR to take on this role.

The response to natural disasters generally does not give rise to significant controversy. The main role and responsibility rests with governments, but in some cases governments may lack the expertise to coordinate protection-related activities, such as registration, detection of vulnerable populations and targeted support for women and children. With its emergency roster of able individuals, UNHCR is well placed, through the UN Country Teams, to provide this support.

Mr. Chairman,

Next year, UNHCR will celebrate its 60th anniversary as an organization. But more importantly, the following year will be the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. We have created a committee under the leadership of the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection to identify, in conjunction with our partners, how best to commemorate these instruments and even, possibly, in light of the changing nature of displacement, whether new ones are, or are not, necessary.

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Delegates,

Thank you very much for your attention.